A Naga settlement

The promise of a Naga peace should galvanise action in a larger peace and development pro-gramme for the Northeast.

News of an accord with a major Dimasa insurgent group that recently decided to lay down arms has been closely followed by word that there have been signs of a breakthrough in the government-NSCN (IM) talks between the Isak Swu-Muivah group and the official interlocutor, R S  Pandey, after 14 years of patient negotiations. This is a major development which, if carried to a conclusion, could transform the Northeast scene and give a considerable fillip to national security.

The NSCN (IM) had earlier more or less expressed willingness to abandon its demand for sovereignty if assured enlarged autonomy within the Indian constitution in statutory form. It had, however, continued to insist on Nagalim or the integration of all Naga-inhabited areas claimed in Assam, Arunachal and Manipur with Nagaland. This had become a sticking point as the Centre took the reasoned stand that it could not vivisect existing states, some like Manipur with a very ancient and unbroken recorded history, without their consent. And this, quite clearly was not forthcoming, resulting in local blockades and ugly Naga-Meitei stand-offs.

It would now seem that the NSCN (IM) has committed itself to the constitution and to Nagaland’s current territorial boundaries subject to an important proviso. It seeks an assurance that ensures that the Naga population in the three adjacent states enjoy similar rights as in Nagaland, in harmony with Naga customary laws and cultural and educational aspirations. This is now to be negotiated by the Centre with Assam, Arunachal and Manipur so that this can be neatly packaged into a Naga accord with such constitutional amendments or legislation as may be necessary by common consent.

Parallel discussions must also be conducted with the NSCN-K groups and the Naga National Council factions so that all Naga groups are on board. This is partly an internal Naga problem as various factions have been fighting turf and fratricidal battles, thus holding an overall settlement to ransom. The church can assist here, but the government must take the initiative.

It is now all the more necessary to act with speed and determination and reassure the governments and peoples of Manipur, Arunachal and Assam that the proposed settlement in no way derogates from their territorial and political status or powers.

Though local Naga-peopled regional councils in Assam, Arunachal and Manipur may thereby in some manner march with Nagaland, this must be done with the consent and blessings of the parent state with an element of reciprocity by Nagaland if and where necessary.

The Indian Constitution is an extremely flexible charter that even now ingeniously incorporates many novel accommodative arrangements. Thus Articles 371-A to I, the Sixth Schedule, autonomous councils with variegated structures and powers and non-territorial apex councils, with which Assam has experimented. There is no need to fear that such innovation might lead to the balkanisation of India or set in motion fissiparous demands elsewhere. This will be no more than another kind of states reorganisation by reordering certain relationships across states.

National consensus

It is most important to take all the Northeast chief ministers and the national Opposition into confidence so that there is an early national consensus on the issue, hopefully within the next few months, as New Year’s gift to the nation marking the end of the country’s oldest and most bitter insurgency. The non-IM Naga factions should also not suffer from a sense of defeat and the arms of all cadres should be decommissioned and all of the underground rehabilitated and trained for suitable employment. This is vital, else many might lapse into crime or petty warlordism, resorting to using extortion to make a living.

As the mother of all Northeast insurgencies with international links, the NSCN’s return to the fold is likely to have a significantly positive impact on the Manipur-Meiti, Kukiand other insurgencies in the region. As in the case of the Mizo settlement, it would be an enormous morale booster all round, if even prior to the execution of formal constitutional amendments, a Naga accord in principle could be cemented by ushering in an interim government in which the former underground elements are participants pending fresh elections. As an alternative, a non-political caretaker government can be handed over charge.

Nagaland’s legislators have already unanimously resolved to resign to make way for a new peace government. Such a government could be inducted into office with a mandate to conduct early polls to elect a new government. The situation in Nagaland is more complex than was the case in Mizoram as only two parties were essentially involved. Nevertheless, the precedent may not be entirely irrelevant. It would signal a new oneness of purpose, unity and confidence in building a new future for the Naga people and the entire Northeast within the larger Indian homeland.

Such a gesture, as indeed an overall settlement, would not be lost on other dissident groups who might be encouraged to fall in line to win an honourable exit from the untenable positions in which they find themselves. To energise the emergence of a new Northeast, the new Northeast Ministry, by some less patronising name, should be located with its minister and staff in Shillong, with a small liaison office in Delhi. The NEC, in turn, must truly be a substantive expert regional planning body (for the areas north and east of the Siliguri corridor) and not remain a mere subordinate agency of the Planning Commission.

At the end of the day, development and economic opportunity ensure and reinforce peace. Derelict bodies like the Brahmaputra Board and Central Inland Water Transport Corporation must be revivified and made engines of dynamic growth. The promise of a Naga peace should galvanise action in a larger peace and development programme for the Northeast. The government must act concurrently, not sequentially. And time matters.

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